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Book 13

  1. Stone, Irving — The Agony and the Ecstasy (439 of 763 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — The Mozart Question (68 pages)
  3. Unsworth, Barry — Stone Virgin (312 pages)
  4. Phillips, Caryl — The Nature of Blood (212 pages)
  5. Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (549 pages)
  6. Lockwood, Richard & Steve Potz-Rayner — A Little Book of Lies (170 pages)
  7. Vickers, Hugh — Great Operatic Disasters (65 pages)
  8. Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (574 pages)
  9. Rennison, Nick — 100 Must-Read Classic Novels (164 pages)
  10. Augustine of Hippo (John K. Ryan, translator) — The Confessions of Saint Augustine (422 pages)
  11. Fitzgerald, F. Scott — The Great Gatsby (146 pages)
  12. Harrison, Fraser — Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota (188 pages)
  13. Banks, Iain M. — Consider Phlebas (466 pages)
Page count
3775
book cover: Consider Phlebas.

My reading goal for 2013 is to read two complete series. The first one I completed is comprised of the two volumes of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. For the second I narrowed the choices down to George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (appropriate given the current popularity of the tv series based on the first book) and Iain M. Bank's Culture novels. Then Banks announced he was dying of cancer, and my choice was made for me.

Consider Phlebas has variously been described as literary science fiction (and having a title that references T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land is a good start), the novel that resurrected the space opera sub-genre, bringing it back to respectability, and (my personal favourite) Star Wars for adults. It lived up to every expectation.

Iain M. Banks, in 9 standalone novels and a collection of stories, created a universe dominated by a pan-galactic, post-scarcity civilization known simply as the Culture. When I decided to dive in, I asked around (colleagues and Google) for the best reading order, getting several well argued answers before deciding to read in the order of publication. I believe now that this was the right choice, as the first in many ways sets up the others. They take place within the Culture (or at least from the perspective of the Culture). But Consider Phlebas introduces the Culture mostly from the perspective of an outsider. The protagonist is one of the last members of a species known as Changers, and he has chosen to side against the Culture in a long and costly war with the Idirans, an aggressive warmongering non-humanoid species.

Despite being set during the Idiran-Culture war, Consider Phlebas is not a war book. It is at its most basic level a quest story (with a few twists). More importantly, though, it provides an opportunity to examine competing philosophies, motivations, lifestyles. The characters we follow in many respects serve collectively as a foil for the Culture, so that we might better understand the Culture by seeing what it's not.

I come back to the "Star Wars for adults" description. One of the things that makes the original Star Wars the greatest movie of all time — there's no room for debate on this point, so just accept it — is that beneath this exciting, romantic romp through the galaxy is the elemental battle between good and evil. Consider Phlebas gives us the exciting and at times laugh-out-loud funny adventure, with a ringworld (orbital) that puts Larry Niven to shame, exploding space stations and skin-of-our-teeth getaways, extremely vivid and at times gory set pieces (which make anything in Mos Eisley look tame and well-mannered); but what lies beneath is far more complex than (and just as compelling as) a battle between two absolutes. There's no clear right and wrong, and the only clue Banks gives as to whom he might side with is the first epigraph, a line from the Koran which sum up the Culture's reasons for engaging the Idirans.

Throughout the novel, the second epigraph, from the "Death by Water" section of The Waste Land, was never far from my thoughts:

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once tall and handsome as you.

It works on many levels throughout. Yet only at the very end, as I contemplated the very unexpected and satisfying ending, did I comprehend what a perfect pairing this is. To say anymore would be to spoil.

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